Struggling to establish a manageable sleep schedule you can stick to? You’re not alone. We asked the experts how to set up a healthy bedtime routine that works for you

We know sleep is important for our health and productivity, but it seems that more and more of us aren’t getting a decent night’s kip, with NHS statistics revealing one in three of us suffers from poor sleep. Further data from YouGov confirms the trend with as many as one in six Britons (18%) catching less than six hours of sleep a night on average. It seems some of us are in need of building a better bedtime practice.

The Covid-19 pandemic only hastened this downward spiral into insomnia with fewer than one in 10 people saying they had ‘very good’ quality sleep during the Covid-19 lockdown in March 2021, deteriorating by 39.4% as the pandemic progressed. Recent research also highlighted the impact poor sleep is having on our physical and mental health.

But when you take out the bottle of milk and storytime you enjoyed in your formative years, what does a sleep routine for an adult look like and what happens when we don’t have one and negative sleeping habits become the norm?

What is a sleep routine?

‘A sleep routine is an established and maintained nightly wind-down window,’ explains Dr Anna Persaud, biochemist and CEO of This Works. ‘Our bodies are programmed to an inbuilt 24-hour circadian clock. When we don’t sleep well, our natural circadian rhythm is impacted, which can reinforce a cycle of tiredness during the day and poor sleep at night that’s hard to break.

‘Adopting a regular, healthy sleep routine helps send a signal to our internal clock and prepare our brains for rest and essential rejuvenation, ensuring other bodily processes including skin repair and cell renewal take place.’

Sounds simple enough, but with the NHS attributing our lack of sleep to ‘stress, computers and taking work home’, it can be hard to know how to get into a sleep routine and avoid these pitfalls.

Scientific research suggests we are all creatures of habit and it takes around 21-40 days to make a behaviour stick, but health and lifestyle coach, Milla Lascelles, advises against making too many changes at once. ‘When building a sleep routine, don’t set yourself up to fail and set a long list that you may eventually fail at because you’ve set yourself too many habits. You can start habit stacking though – identifying a current habit you already do every day and at the same time stacking a new behaviour on top – by experimenting with a few simple changes to help you wind down.’

Don’t think your lack of sleep is having an impact? Here’s our guide to how sleep can affect your immune system

5 ways to build a sleep routine

1.  Get into a regular sleeping routine
2.  Expose yourself to bright light as soon as you wake up
3.  Make your bedroom sleep-friendly
4.  Don’t eat or drink an hour before going to sleep
5.  Create a wind-down routine that works for you

1.  Routine is everything

The scientific jury is out on the amount of sleep we need but the general consensus is seven to nine hours per night for healthy adults. The NHS recommends keeping to a regular sleeping routine as much as possible, so try going to bed at the same time each night to help teach your body to sleep better. If you’re a shift worker, try to build in a routine wherever possible and go to bed at the same time – even if it means your bedtime is 10am every day.

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2.  Sleep with the sun – expose yourself to bright light as soon as you wake up

‘The main cues for sleep are environmental and exposure to daylight significantly impacts our sleep-wake cycle,’ explains This Works expert scientific advisor Professor Gaby Badre. And it turns out your preparation for good sleep should start first thing. ‘Exposing yourself to bright light as soon as you wake up in the morning resets the circadian clock and the shifting seasons’ impact on our night-time sleeping patterns. This is because melatonin, which is a natural hormone and helps control sleep patterns, is affected by levels of light and dark.’

Similarly, studies have suggested that reducing light exposure in the evening may help adjust circadian rhythms. The Lumie Bodyclock Spark 100 wake-up light alarm clock (£79.99) has a sunset feature that lasts 30 minutes to encourage the body to produce melatonin ready for sleep to make you naturally drowsy. It also starts to brighten 30 minutes before your alarm time, waking you naturally to a warm glow or a bright, sunny room – even on darker mornings.

As well as light exposure, find out whether yoga nidra can help you drift off.

3.  Power down – make your bedroom sleep friendly

Our bodies not only respond to light, but darkness, too, so it’s worth making your bedroom as dark as possible – including limiting phone use thanks to the blue light it emits. ‘We all know blue light from screens and electronic devices affects our internal clock negatively at bedtime so ensure you lower the lights and stop using electronics one hour before you sleep,’ advises Christina Salcedes, global director of education at Aromatherapy Associates. 

In fact, research by Harvard University revealed that blue light suppresses melatonin for about twice as long as green light (emitted by the sun and artificial light) and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much.

‘I recommend putting lamps on in the sitting room and bathrooms, rather than pin spot downlights, to help wind our brain down for sleep,’ says Milla. 

Other ways to make your bedroom as sleep-friendly as possible include staying cool, be it through lighter nightwear or choosing cotton bed sheets over satin, and encouraging airflow.

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4.  Fuel your rest – don’t eat or drink an hour before going to sleep

You might think about fuelling your body for exercise or mental exertion at work, but fuelling the body for sleep is also important. And whether it’s a jolt of energy after your morning caffeine hit or a 3pm slump after a heavy lunch, we know that food can affect energy levels. 

Recent research suggests that eating or drinking less than one hour before bedtime was associated with an increased risk of waking after falling asleep. This is especially true of caffeine and alcohol, with the NHS advising these are best avoided before going to bed. 

And do your worries keep you up at night? Try keeping a sleep diary by your bedside, so that you can write down your worries as they come or make a list of things to tackle before bedtime, so that you have a plan for the next day. Discover more ways to help calm your mind at night here.

5.  Indulge in self-care – create a wind down routine that works for you

While you might think taking a bath and applying a face mask could eat into your vital sleep time, German research showed that practising self-care helped people sleep better in the early days of the pandemic. 

‘Make a list of things that help you unwind and feel calmer before bedtime. They could include having a warm bath, massaging in a cream, listening to a guided meditation, doing some journaling or inhaling essential oils,’ advises hypnotherapist, anxiety expert and author of The Anxiety Solution, Chloe Brotheridge. ‘Keep anything you need to hand and decide on a time when the sleep routine needs to start, for example, deciding to start getting ready for bed at 9:30pm every evening ready for lights off at 10pm. Make a note of how this new routine makes you feel and any impact on your sleep quality so that you can assess what’s working for you.’

In our experience, one of the most effective ways to help unwind from everyday stresses and facilitate the shift from day to night is a warm bath or shower. ‘Essential oils can enhance the effect,’ says Christina. Try Aromatherapy Associates Deep Relax Bath and Shower Oil (£50) to allow your mind, and body, to unwind. It contains vetiver which has long been used in aromatherapy for its relaxation benefits.

If you prefer showering in the morning, fragrance might still play a role in your bedtime routine, with some studies citing that the inhalation of essential oils – particularly lavender – may help those who suffer from mild sleep disturbances. This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray (£19.50) contains a blend of lavender, vetiver and camomile to help calm both mind and body as soon as your head hits the pillow to create a restful sleep environment. Good night.

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All prices correct on date of publication.